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Political intolerance risks sliding country back to election violence

By | February 26th 2012

By Tom Odhiambo

What is the meaning of a peace rally? What do prayers mean? When I was young, I was told to pray meant to ask God for peace, security, plenty to eat, a place to sleep and for one’s parents, relatives and friends to be healthy.

Since when did these expectations of ‘prayer’ change? When did politicians change the meaning of this simple word and begin to confuse clergy to pray for the damnation of the politicians’ opponents?

As many have asked before me, why have prayers for some few individuals who lack for nothing, can fly from one rally to another, and can afford to live beyond politics when there are millions of Kenyans hemmed into their shacks, in shantytowns and villages by poverty? I have no doubt that the few VIPs need prayers, like everyone else, but why would a priest who lives within one kilometre of an IDP camp, but who has never gone to congregate with those miserable souls in the camp, wake up one morning and start shouting to the good Lord to save the VIPs from a court process?

We are sliding towards that point where we may soon be in the league of intolerable societies where ‘others’ are hated, despised, maimed or simply killed, all for just being not the same or sharing views of those in the majority or in charge of affairs of the State or not subscribing to the dominant religion or culture.

The signs of this intolerance are many: shouted from pulpits by you know who; hurriedly scribbled in newspapers columns by commentators on social issues and sophists; purveyed in garbled speech in radio phone-in calls; retailed to all and sundry in pamphlets on the streets; or often simply declared publicly for those who care to listen. But even as these doctrinaires shout their dogmas, demanding that others listen, are they listening to their voices?

Do these purveyors of intolerance ever pause to wonder the danger inherent in their words? Do they know how many civilisations have been destroyed by mere words? Are we really so forgetful or amnesiac as not to remember what really is an immediate past when thousands were killed and maimed and millions traumatised, all due to wrongly used and misinterpreted words?

What was the post-election violence about if not intolerance? Wasn’t it the depiction of those different from us as evil, thieving, dirty, corrupt, poor, undemocratic or selfish that gave birth to that monster child of inter-ethnic hatred and murders? Now we seem to be in a hurry to beget another baby demon. How can people start saying that ‘Kenya ina wenyewe?’ I was taught in my history class all the way from primary school to the university that I am a Kenyan. So, who are these ‘special’ owners of Kenyans? Is it true that some Kenyans have got no right to hold public office ? When people are attacked publicly for supposedly ‘supporting’ Raila Odinga for wanting to be the president, isn’t this intolerance? And why should Raila be equated to the Luo? He may have a lot of supporters in Nyanza Province but this man is an MP in Nairobi.

Show me any one of all the individuals hankering for the presidency who are elected MPs in a cosmopolitan constituency? There is a hate campaign out there directed at millions of other Kenyans who have peacefully co-existed with other Kenyans, camouflaged as the right of speech.

It is time Dr Mzalendo Kibunjia and his commission acted on the innuendoes, lies and outright insults at political rallies, prayer meetings, in newspapers, on radio, on TV and on the Internet.

We have become a society incapable of loving others; we are not magnanimous to those we differ with. And yet we know that we do not have to look far to see how destruction, unkindness or anger have caused to humankind. The Holocaust; the genocide in Rwanda; the atrocities in Darfur; the violence in Northern Ireland; a majority of civil wars and wars between nations were and are still ignited by simply denying others a chance to express their opinion, practise what they believe or live their lives as the way they want.

I write because I worry that the majority of the audiences at the rallies, meetings and in media such as Facebook, Tweeter and other online sites are the youth. This is a most impressionable group, which only needs a few incendiary words to burn the country again. Politicians have to begin using words to win over and not to trample upon others. And for the youth, reject the wiliness and wilfulness of politicians.

The writer is lecturer at the University of Nairobi

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